Daniel W. Drezner

John Bolton is right about the United Nations

John Bolton’s confirmation as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has been in the news as of late (the committee vote for him has been delayed until next week). There’s not a lot of love for Bolton among Democrats, Republicans of the Richard Lugar ilk, or, apparently, State Department staffers. Richard Cohen’s column in the ...

John Bolton’s confirmation as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has been in the news as of late (the committee vote for him has been delayed until next week). There’s not a lot of love for Bolton among Democrats, Republicans of the Richard Lugar ilk, or, apparently, State Department staffers. Richard Cohen’s column in the Washington Post entitled “Disaster, Not Diplomacy” ably summarizes the conventional take on Bolton. And while I don’t want to defend Bolton’s record or comportment (see William Kristol for one defense) there is one line of criticism that really bugs the hell out of me. From Cohen’s column:

The rap against Bolton’s nomination as U.N. ambassador is that he has maximum contempt for that organization. He once went so far as to flatly declare that “there is no United Nations,” just an international community that occasionally “can be led by the only real power left in the world — and that’s the United States.” (emphasis added)

OK, let’s get that quote in context. This is from a Democracy Now! web page, which informs us that the original quote came from a Bolton presentation “more than 10 years ago where he was speaking at an event called the “Global Structures Convocation,” held on February 3, 1994 in New York”:

The point that I want to leave with you in this very brief presentation is where I started, is that there is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that’s the United States, when it suits our interest, and when we can get others to go along. And I think it would be a real mistake to count on the United Nations as if it is some disembodied entity out there that can function on its own.

I don’t know if Bolton is a serial bully, I don’t know if he’d be a great ambassador to the UN, and I share Jonah Goldberg’s concern about the moustache, but I will say one thing — Bolton’s assessment of the United Nations was and is 100% correct. He’s not saying the organization doesn’t exist — he’s saying that thinking of the UN as a single coherent actor is both factually incorrect and counterproductive to U.S. foreign policy. The United Nations acts in a forceful manner if and only if the United States and other great powers agree that such action is necessary. [What about specialized bureaucracies like the UN Development Program or the World Health Organization?–ed. The more “technical” agencies do have more autonomy, but even in these areas the great power delegations wield effective vetoes and can guide UN actions in these issue areas.] It’s telling that a few months after Bolton made this statement, the U.N. decided not to get involved in the Rwandan genocide — primarily because the U.S. government wanted no part of getting involved. I might add that most international relations scholars would acknowledge this fact to be true for most international governmental organizations (IGOs) in existence. These organizations — including the UN — provide useful fora for negotiation, bargaining, diplomatic coordination, and occasionally collective action. At best, IGO secretariats can, once in a blue moon, try to get an issue or policy option onto the global agenda. But to go from that possibility to thinking of them as truly independent actors is to make a very heroic assumption about the functioning of world politics. [How strong is this consensus among IR scholars?–ed. It’s not unanimous, but let’s put it this way. Susan Strange’s last book, The Retreat of the State (CUP, 1996), was pretty much devoted to showing the myriad ways in which states were losing their control over world politics to multinational corporations, criminal mafias, etc. When she got to IGOs, however, Strange threw up her hands and conceded that for international institutions, states still rule the roost.] Perhaps Bolton takes more glee in this assessment of the UN than his critics do — and that’s a normative debate that will not go away. But to chide Bolton for the quoted passage above is absurd. He was making an empirical assessment of the United Nations — and his assessment was correct. UPDATE: Note to self — check out David Brooks before posting on a more regular basis.

 Twitter: @dandrezner

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola